Hernando Cortez

Accordingly, as soon as the disturbance which had arisen among his men was quashed, Cortez marched to Campoalla, a city not rich, but prettily built, and containing a population, as it appeared, of about thirty thousand inhabitants. He was cordially received by the cacique, a large and very corpulent man. Remaining some time in Campoalla and its neighborhood, while the city of Villa Rica was being built, the Spaniards soon gained the reverence and good-will of the inhabitants, the Totonacs, who willingly submitted themselves to the dominion of the distant monarch Don Carlos, of whom the Spaniards told them. Here the Spaniards were horrified by the symptoms of human sacrifice, which were perpetually visible in the temples - the blood-stained walls, and the fragments of human flesh which lay about; and, fired with religious enthusiasm, they resolved to put a stop to such practices by tearing down the idols. Cortez informed the cacique of his intention; but although the announcement filled him with speechless dismay, no opposition was offered, and the idols were broken in pieces, and burnt before the eyes of the Totonacs, while the priests went about shrieking like demons. 'These priests,' we are told, 'were dressed in long black mantles, like sheets with hoods: their robes reached to their feet. Their long hair was matted together with clotted blood; with some it reached to the waist, and with others to the feet: their ears were torn and cut, and they smelt horribly, as it were of sulphur and putrid flesh.'

The destruction of their idols did not alienate the Totonacs from the Spaniards; on the contrary, it raised their opinion of them, inasmuch as they saw the gods patient under the indignity. The intercourse of the two parties, therefore, continued; and, by his frequent conversations with the cacique, Cortez gained greater insight every day into the condition of Montezuma's empire.

By this time the town of Villa Rica had been nearly finished, and nothing remained to prevent the Spaniards from commencing their march into the interior. Before beginning it, however, Cortez deemed it advisable to send a report of his proceedings to Spain, to be laid before the king, knowing that Velasquez must have represented his conduct in very disadvantageous terms to the home government. Accordingly, Cortez drew up one letter, and the magistrates of the new colony another, detailing the whole of the incidents of the expedition down to the foundation of Villa Rica, and announcing that they were on the point of commencing their march into the heart of the country. To increase the effect of the letters, they were accompanied by nearly all the gold that had been collected, together with the splendid gifts of Montezuma, and such curiosities as might interest the learned of Spain. The business of carrying these letters to the king was intrusted to Montejo and Puerto Carrero, and they were instructed, above all, to endeavor to secure the appointment of Cortez as captain-general of the colony. On the 26th of July 1519, the little ship set sail, freighted with a more precious cargo than had ever yet been packed within the timbers of a vessel from the new world. The pilot was instructed to make direct for Spain, landing at no intermediate station, and especially avoiding Cuba.

The departure of this vessel seems to have raised thoughts of home in the minds of some of those who were left behind. A conspiracy was formed by some of the soldiers and sailors, along with the clergyman Diaz, to sieze a vessel and return to Cuba. The conspiracy was discovered; two of the ringleaders were hanged, and the rest whipped or confined. Foreseeing, however, that such conspiracies would be constantly occurring, unless effectual means were taken to prevent them, Cortez came to the resolution, almost unparalleled in the annals of heroism, of destroying the ships which had brought him to Mexico. Accordingly, taking counsel with a few of his most attached followers, he procured a report from the pilots that the vessels were not seaworthy, and caused them to be broken, in pieces and sunk, before the majority were aware of his design. When the Spaniards thus saw themselves shut up in a strange and populous country, with no means of retreat, their first impulse was one of rage and despair, and Cortez had nearly fallen a sacrifice. As he foresaw, however, the daring act had the effect of bracing his men to a pitch of resolution all but supernatural. Besides, by the destruction of the fleet, he obtained a reinforcement of a hundred and ten men - the mariners formerly employed in the ships being now converted into soldiers, and very good ones, as it afterwards proved.